Even at a young age, Dr. Jane Paulsen knew that what she wanted out of life more than anything was to help people. Coming from a small town, without family members who had made a profession in the sciences, she didn’t really know what form that life goal of hers would take. But she knew, whatever form it would ultimately take, that was her calling in life.
“I didn’t really think of medical and scientific research as a career, so I moved toward psychology at Simpson,” Paulsen said. “I knew I wanted to help people, and psychology is a helping science.”
Eventually, her studies in psychology led her to discover the field of neuropsychology—combining the basic science with an understanding of the brain, and she was hooked. “It was great that I could do something that was so intellectually stimulating, challenging and interesting like neuroscience, and through research, I could still try to impact people’s lives in a positive way,” she explained. “It was a perfect fit for me.”
During her time at Simpson, Paulsen thrived in an academic setting that encouraged research and breaking through disciplinary boundaries. With Dr. Alan Magruder, she blended her interests in science and psychology with her strengths in public speaking and her personal drive to improve lives. With Herr Buhr, professor emeritus of German, she traveled to psychiatric treatment facilities throughout Europe and was challenged to constantly think outside the box and develop an international perspective. With the help of Professor Carl Halgren, Paulsen discovered countless volunteer opportunities working with adults and children living with mental disabilities, which led to a position as a psychiatric technician at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.
“I was fortunate to learn from amazing nurses, social workers, psychologists and physicians who taught me about inpatient psychiatric treatment; both its benefits as well as its limitations,” Paulsen said.
After Simpson, curious about big-city life after having spent most of her years living and learning in small town Iowa, Paulsen moved to New York. She spent time working at the Neurological Institute at Columbia University, as well as taking graduate courses there, before moving back to pursue her Ph.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Iowa.
Today, Paulsen is professor of psychiatry, neurology, psychology and neurosciences at the University of Iowa. She also serves as director of the divisions of Neuropsychology and Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University’s Carver College of Medicine, and is director of the University of Iowa’s Huntington Disease Society of America Center of Excellence.
Most of her research is focused on Huntington Disease, an inherited, progressive degenerative disease that impacts a person’s movement, thinking ability and mood. In addition to all her other work, Paulsen is principal investigator for the predict-HD study, a 30-site observational study of health persons at known genetic risk for HD.
“I’m passionate about research and improving the lives of people affected by Huntington Disease and other brain diseases,” she said. “Until we have treatments and ultimately a cure to offer these families, our work won’t stop and our work will never be boring. There’s so much more to do and to discover, and that makes me motivated to keep going.”